Linas Jegelevičius interviewed a long-serving Estonian statesman Tunne Kelam, one of the leading advocates for restoration of independence in Estonia in the 1980s, and later serving as Vice Speaker of Parliament. Kelam (IRL) was elected to the European Parliament in 2004.
At 79, he is still spry and sly, but it is hard to get rid of the feeling that Tunne Kelam, the patriarch of independent Estonia, now a MEP, looks down upon modern Estonian politics, calling it “quite boring”, and snubs the neatly-combed army of much younger colleagues at the European Parliament, where the year-shy octogenarian serves his third consecutive tenure. “I wouldn't like to be starting from scratch there now,” Kelam says.
What gets you going in the hyped-up European Parliament? Can old guns still fire?
I don’t feel much difference compared to how I feel now and, say, a dozen years ago. I am perhaps like my Lithuanian colleague – I guess you know whom I am talking about – Vytautas Landsbergis (former Lithuanian MEP), who marked his 80th birthday a few years ago in the European Parliament. So, you see, I have a good role model to follow. Age does not mean anything, trust me. Just a plain number, but behind it is a huge experience. Nevertheless, to make good use of it at the matured stage in life, one has to be in a good shape.
What are the secrets for your longevity?
It’s all about exercising, right mental attitude and proper nutrition. I’ve been vegetarian for over 40 years now – no meat whatsoever in my ration. Spending a lot of time in fresh air is very important to me, too.
Most of the Estonian Cabinet is under 40 years of age, quite a contrast to the middle-aged ministers of the Lithuanian Government. Why Estonians, unlike the neighbors, entrust young generation with power?
I don’t think it is about trust or mistrust in any generation – young or old. For me, it’s about trust in your leaders – note, elected by all in a democratic way. Before, we’d have middle-aged political leaders in Estonia, but they somehow got exhausted in power. Still, I believe it is a sheer coincidence that in Estonia’s ruling coalition we have comparatively young leaders.
By the way, the new leader of my party, Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, Margus Tsahkna, who is also Minister of Social Protection in the Cabinet, is also under 40. When he was introduced to Germany’s Angela Merkel at the European People's Party (EPP) congress and confessed to her that he is the youngest among the Coalition parties’ leaders, Merkel started laughing sincerely.
You have been mingling in the European Parliament since 2004. Haven’t you got bored there yet? What keeps you there?
I think I would have gotten terribly bored by now if I had stayed in the Estonian Parliament. The politics had been quite more exciting and unpredictable back in the early 1990s, when I first came to Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament) in 1992. The time was marked with considerable political fights and intensity of the legislation.
I am very proud now of having been the first Estonian leader to represent the country in the European Council. But thereafter the politics became more tedious.
To answer your question, back in 2004, I was not very fond of running for a seat in the European Parliament. Getting to know everything there and grasp how the Parliament works has taken quite some time. I would not want to go all over it again. I sometimes feel for the guys who are just starting the work [in the European Parliament] from scratch. But with two full tenures and nearly two years from the current one under my belt, I can tell this: I am enjoying the work. The more time you spend there, the more influential you get. And when it comes to a small state like Estonia, the more connections and friends around the world you have, the more you can do for the country you represent.
I remember the year of 2007, when riots erupted in the Estonian capital, after the authorities' plan to remove a memorial for Soviet soldiers in Tallinn, emerged. I reacted swiftly in the European Parliament to the events, getting many parliamentarians to rally in support of Estonia. We were able to pass a resolution on solidarity with Estonia and they joined me in a demonstration in support of my country. These people simply trusted me. It meant a lot to me.
I have no doubt you are being quizzed and showered with praises over Estonia’s e-endeavors. But are you hearing any misconceptions about your country in Brussels?
I don’t really hear any misconceptions about Estonia, frankly. But the Baltic region, obviously, needs to be better known in the world. And, trust me, the European Parliament is the most efficient and ideal place for small countries like ours to introduce ourselves. Not only to 751 MEPs, but also to dozens of foreign delegations that visit the Parliament every day.
Do your counterparts in Brussels tend to see the Baltics as a single region or make any difference among the three countries?
I’d say that, for the most, the Baltics makes a special region, one of a special category. Some from farther tend to add Sweden or Finland to it, too.
Without a doubt, you are a revered statesman in Estonia and many turn ear to what you say. Is there anything you don’t like about the Estonians politics? What ought to be changed?
[Pause] I think we need to be more innovative and more united nationally. Unfortunately, too much energy is being wasted for political bickering among different political parties. Estonia was very good and effective introducing e-governance ten years ago, but now we need a new push.
I don’t see, for example, Estonia’s long-term national strategy. It’s lacking. The pursuit of a wealthier country cannot be a national goal. I really want to see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Estonia becoming islands of stability, certain role models in that striving. Also, that we would be able to mediate in a difficult situation talking about our common values, history and the roots of the European Union.
I’m surprised you want Estonia to be more innovative. You are from the first country in the world offering e-citizenship! What other boundaries do you see Estonia eclipsing?
Well, there’s always room for improvement, not necessarily in things of e-realm. I’m talking about the quality of our education. The debate how it should look like is going on, but no results are seen yet. Perhaps not so much innovative as efficient we have to be with our administrative reform. Too many local governments of different size create a big obstacle for progress. Because of the Estonian parties’ different takes on the issue, the delay has been inexcusably for too long now. To be precise, over 10 years now.
By the way, do you use e-mail, Facebook and Twitter?
I don’t use Twitter of the three.
What are the biggest dangers you believe the European Union is facing?
The biggest dangers are lack of unity, lack of strategy and a very vague understanding of what European identity is. You could answer about it perhaps two hundred years ago, but not today. For me, the answer lies on the continuation of basic common values we share. Unfortunately, many people today are talking just about human rights as European values. But there’s much more beyond them. Like the value of solidarity, for example. But the problem of identity is essential.
Is there anything wrong with expanding human rights to some other groups of the society, like homosexuals, for example? Aren’t you proud that Estonia is the first republic of the former Soviet Union to legalize same-sex partnerships?
You cannot expect me to support same-sex partnerships. For me, it is an artificial problem. I am the traditionalist who believes that family is a union between woman and man with the goal to have and raise children, provide them home, education and many more. I am not though against same-sex couples living together, but I don’t think it makes sense to equal them to the hetero couples. However, there are many more serious problems than that.
Do you believe David Cameron-led UK will exit the European Union?
I don’t believe that UK will leave the European Union. I’ve listened to the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and he assured us all that the negotiations are in the process. Characteristically to him, he admitted he is not a very good ballroom dancer, but can keep up the tango rhythm with Cameron and that a special sort of agreement between the United Kingdom and European Union can be reached.
The issue of refugee crisis has gripped the European powers and Brussels, too. Do you imagine a migrant family resettling next to your house in Estonia?
I can imagine this, of course. But the Baltic states were dealing with different kinds of refugees just 25 years ago… The problem here is the size of our populations. How long will all the mess last? And where will we end up? There are no clear answers, unfortunately. All what is going on shows weakness of the European border security policies. The European Union would often abstain from solving the growing crisis in Syria. Because of the abstention, we are now in a position of good Samaritans, taking care of the hapless army of people. We are dealing now with the aftermath, but we haven’t yet addressed the roots of the crisis.
If you were the EU foreign policy chief, what would you do?
We need to have a long-term engagement in the Middle East. We need to establish the no-fly zones there, secure areas and make sure that the people, who had to move locally, stay within the country in secured regions and do not have to set out for Europe-bound journeys. The flow of refugees started when they realized that they, because of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and Islamic State, do not have any perspectives at home any more. Much has been neglected by the US and European Union there.
Have you come across to supporters for Putin's actions in Syria in the European Parliament?
In fact, I have. Quite many of them, as a matter of fact. Every seventh member of the Parliament, both from the left and right, has turned out to be a sympathizer of what Putin is doing in Syria. So there is one hundred in total at least. On the whole, mister Putin is gambling dangerously. With the actions in Syria, he has turned away attention from Ukraine, and the Baltic states in a way, too. His long-term strategy is set to fail, but, at the meantime, he causes much confusion.
Editor: S. Tambur